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St. John's vs. Gonzaga: preview and scouting report

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Looking at the balanced Gonzaga lineup.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

In Madison Square Garden, the St. John's Red Storm (4-0) faces the #10/#8 Gonzaga Bulldogs (5-0) for the NIT Season Tip-Off Championship.

Yes, Steve Lavin's squad has an opportunity to show that the incremental progress and occasional setbacks of the past years have been leading to a year where the program breaks through with marquee wins.

But the season, still, is long. By simply playing in the final, the Red Storm increase their predicted strength of schedule and add another ranked team to their list of opponents.

The mission is not accomplished, yet, and won't be accomplished tonight.

But championship tonight would also be the first championship since the Great Alaska Shootout. And it would go a long way to legitimizing the work done on the St. John's program - and the talent of the players.

"[The Minnesota win was] a big win for us, but we're not done yet," said D`Angelo Harrison after Wednesday's victory.

Scouting Gonzaga

The competition tonight is stiffer than in the first four games. The Bulldogs are thought to be darkhorse National Championship contenders.

Ranked #10 in the USA Today poll and #8 in the AP poll, the Zags come from Spokane with a balanced scoring attack led by dynamic Canadians Kevin Pangos (at guard) and Kyle Wiltjer, the Kentucky transfer and former SEC Sixth Man of the Year.

The Bulldogs are averaging 93 points per game and are 5-0 on the season, turning the ball over on 15% of possessions. (Read more in the scouting report, coming later.)

Mark Few knows what the Red Storm game plan will be tonight. "They’re going to bounce it and bounce it," Few said in the Spokane Spokesman Review. "They’re going to try to speed us up, fluster us and try to block everything at the rim."

From Zach at The Slipper Still Fits, we have a strong scouting report on the Bulldogs' strengths and weaknesses.

Expectations are extremely high in Spokane for what appears to be one of the best teams that Mark Few has ever had. Thus far, the Bulldogs have lived up to the hype as they have dominated SMU, St. Joe's, and cruised past Georgia on Wednesday.

As with most every Gonzaga team in recent memory, this team is paced by its incredible offense. They are currently 7th in the nation in eFG% at 62% and 4th in overall offensive rating.

Leading the pack for the Zags is a very familiar face in Kevin Pangos. The 4-year starter is finally healthy after several seasons with nagging injuries and it is paying off in a big way. He's averaging 13 points and 6 assists per game. His efficiency is what has set him apart, however. He has a 68% eFG% and did not register his first turnover until this past game against Georgia.

Pangos and fellow senior Gary Bell have been outstanding but they've been bolstered by the incredible post play from the Bulldog bigs. Newcomers Kyle Wiltjer and Domantas Sabonis have joined Przemek Karnowski and Angel Nunez to form an elite front court that can do it all.

Wiltjer put the team on his back against Georgia, going for 32 points. Sabonis and Karnowski have been very susceptible to foul issues which could be an issue against the torrid pace of St. John's.

While the Zags have been superb this season, the Georgia game definitely unearthed some weaknesses. Mainly, stopping dribble penetration on defense. Gonzaga has exceeded expectations for most of the year in this regard but St. John's pace could give them some issues.

This could become a large issue against teams that have versatility in the front court as Kyle Wiltjer has particularly struggled when he's pulled out to defend on the outside.

The last piece worth mentioning is the injury to reserve point guard Josh Perkins. The freshman point guard was setting up to be a huge piece for the Zags this year but a broken jaw will sideline him for at least 2 months.

With his injury, Gonzaga is very thin behind Bell and Pangos and may look to burn the redshirt of fellow freshman, Silas Melson. It will be unlikely to see Melson on Friday but the guard situation will be nerve wracking to watch over the next several weeks.

How can St. John's pull off a victory?

Watching the Gonzaga Bulldogs, it's clear that they are the team with Kentucky level athleticism – but they are a team with high-level execution.

Against the Georgia Bulldogs, Gonzaga displayed heady play but slow down a bit in the end of the first half.

Led by Kevin Pangos, a guard that could get nominations for player of the year, Gonzaga has a balanced attack. St. John's will want to watch out not just for their big man Przemek Karnovsky, but for the multifaceted Kyle Wiltjer.

For St. John's, the danger is that Gonzaga has few glaring weaknesses. They can shoot from the outside, and they can bang on the inside, and they can slash, and they play the kind of smart basketball that often does not fall victim to the length and defensive athleticism St. John's brings to bear.

Steve Lavin's team needs to impose their will and chaos. The effectively wild defense and offense drags opponents into a muck of fast transition play where the Johnnies want to be.

If St. John's makes some of the mistakes they made against Minnesota, such as leaving shooters open on the perimeter, the Johnnies will find that Gonzaga will make them pay much more quickly than the Gophers did.

The key for St. John's will be to play mistake-free basketball - and make a much higher percentage of shots than they have so far this season; they have shot 23% from outside the arc, buoyed by their performance against Franklin Pierce. The Red Storm have shot 50% from inside the arc.

And the Red Storm need to take advantage when the Zags plays man defense; when they move into a zone, the Johnnies will find the going much tougher on offense.

St. John's may need to access their depth tonight against the Zags size. The bench, so far, has been Jamal Branch with cameos from Felix Balamou and Christian Jones. The Bulldogs may choose to try and pound the paint against the small St. John's front line to put pressure on the small lineup.

Score prediction

St. John's makes a late rally late but can't overtake the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Gonzaga wins, 74-67.

What's your score prediction?